S. H. (Samuel Henry) Butcher.

Aristotle's theory of poetry and fine art : with a critical text and translation of the Poetics online

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evolves itself out of human, emotion and human
will in such a manner that action and character
are each in turn the outcome of the other.

Such a drama was the creation of Greece, and of
all her creations perhaps the greatest. Epic and lyric
poetry have everywhere sprung up independently.
Dramatic spectacles, religious or secular, are found
in every country, and at all periods of civilisation.
Dramatic narratives, such as the Book of Job,
dramatic lyrics, such as the Song of Solomon, are
among the forms of composition which meet us in
the Old Testament. Lyrical dramas, which in their
constituent elements recall the first beginnings of
the Greek drama, have existed in China and Japan.
India has produced vast poems which pass under the
name of dramas, wanting, however, both the unity
of action and the spiritual freedom which the drama
proper implies. The Greek drama is the harmonious
fusion of two elements which never before had been
perfectly blended. Lyrical in its origin, epic in the
nature of its materials, it is at once an expression
of passionate feeling and the story of an action ; it
embodies emotion, but an emotion which grows into
will and issues in deeds. If the lyrical utterance of
feeling had remained the dominant, as it was the


original, element in a Greek tragedy, it would have
been left for some other people to create the tragic
drama. As it was, the Greeks fixed unalterably
its distinctive form and the artistic principle of its



Poetry, we say — following Aristotle — is an ex-
pression of the universal element in human life ;:
or, in equivalent modern phrase, it idealises life.
Now the word 'idealise' has two senses, which
have given rise to some confusion. Writers on
aesthetics generally mean by it the representation
of an object in its permanent and essential aspects,,
in a form that answers to its true idea ; disengaged
from the passing accidents that cling to individu-
ality, and from disturbing influences that obscure
the type. What is local or transient is either
omitted or reduced to subordinate rank ; the par-
ticular is enlarged till it broadens out into the
human and the universal. In this sense 'th&
ideal ' is ' the universal ' of the Poetics. But
there is another and more popular use of the
term, by which an idealised representation implies
not only an absence of disturbing influences in the
manifestation of the idea, but a positive accession
of what is beautiful. The object is seized in some


tappy and characteristic moment, its lines of grace
or strength are more firmly drawn, its beauty is
heightened, its significance increased, while the
likeness to the original is retained. The two senses
of the word coincide in the higher regions of art.
When the subject-matter of artistic representation
already possesses a grandeur or dignity of its own,
its dominant characteristics will become more
salient by the suppression of accidental features,
and the ideal form that results will have added
elements of beauty. The leading characters in
tragedy, while true to human nature, stand out
above the common man in stature and nobility,
just as, by the art of the portrait-painter, a likeness
is reproduced and yet idealised.^ In the very act
of eliminating the accidental a higher beauty and
perfection are discovered than was manifested in
the world of reality. Tragedy, therefore, in the
persons of its heroes combines both kinds of
idealisation ; it universalises, and in so doing it

Idealised portraiture does not, as has been
already observed,^ consist in presenting characters
of flawless virtue. Aristotle's tragic hero, as
delineated in the Poetics (ch. xiii.), is by no means
free from faults or failings. The instance, again,

^ Poet. XV. 8, diroSiSovTes rrjv ISiav /jLopfftrjv o/xoiovs Jrotowres
KaWiovs ypa(f>ov(nv,
2 p. 232.

2 B


of Achilles as a poetic type of character, who in
spite of defects has a moral nobility entitling him
to rank as ideal, shows that the idealising process,
as understood by Aristotle, does not imply the
omission of all defects.^ In general it may be said
that some particular quality or group of qualities
must be thrown into relief; some commanding
faculty heightened, provided that in so doing the
equipoise of character which constitutes a typical
human being is not disturbed. The ideal is that
which is raised above the trivial and accidental ;
by virtue of a universal element which answers to
the true idea of the object it transcends the limita-
tions of the individual. Even vicious characters
are not entirely excluded from tragedy on Aris-
totle's theory,^ though the villain may not hold the
position of protagonist. The saying attributed to
Sophocles, avTO'; fiev o'lov; Set iroieiv, ^vpiiriSrjv Be
oloi ela-i, does not bear the interpretation sometimes
assigned to it, that the characters of Sophocles are
patterns of heroic goodness, while those of Euri-
pides are the men and women of real life." The

1 Poet. XV. 8. 2 pp 227 and 316.

3 Poet. XXV. 6, ir/5&s Se tovtok eav l;rtTi/taToi on ovk ak-rjOrj,
dA.A.' «r(os <(ji)S> Set — olov Kal 2o<^okA^s e(j>rj avrhs [lev oious 8ei
•Troieiv, EvpnriSrjV Se oIol turiv — Tavry X.vTeov. There is some
doubt as to the literal rendering of the words avros /j^v oi'ovs Set
TToietv. Vahlen and most editors understand elvai with otovs Set,
'men as they should be,' whereas strict grammar undoubtedly
requires us to understand woietv, ' men as the poet should repre-


■meaning is that the characters of Sophocles answer
to the higher dramatic requirements ; they are
typical of universal human nature in its deeper
and abiding aspects ; they are ideal, but ideally
human ; whereas Euripides reproduced personal
idiosyncrasies and the trivial features of everyday

Objection may be taken to the distinction
drawn between the two meanings of the word
' idealise,' on the ground that they run into one
another and fundamentally mean the same thing.
It may be urged that so far as an object assumes
its universal form, ridding itself of non-essentials,
it will stand out in perfect beauty ; for all ugliness,
all imperfection, all evil itself, is an accident
of nature, a derangement and disturbance by
which things fall short of their true idea. To

sent them,' 'men aa they ought to be drawn.' In the first edition
I inclined to the latter view.

The general context, however, and the equivalent phrases in
"this chapter (oTa etvat, Set § 1, <a)S> Set § 6, ^eXriov § 7, ttjoos
rh /3e\Tiov § 17) point strongly to the first interpretation. It
has in its favour this further fact (as is justly observed by Mr.
E. C. Seaton, Classical Review, vol. xi. No. 6), that the saying of
Sophocles is thus couched in a less arrogant form. Accepting
this view we must explain otous Set (and similarly <(Iis> Set § (6)
as a kind of shorthand expression used, with more than Aristotelian
brevity and disregard of grammar, to denote the ideal in poetry.

Even if etvat is to be understood with Set, the Set will still be
the 'ought' of aesthetic obligation, not the moral 'ought.' It has
been previously shown, however, that the aesthetic ideal of character
in the Poetics implies a high, though not a perfect morality.


represent the universal would thus in its ultimate
analysis imply the representation of the object in
the noblest and fairest forms in which it can clothe
itself according to artistic laws. Comedy, which
concerns itself with the follies and foibles, the
flaws and imperfections of mankind, cannot on this
reasoning idealise or universalise its object.

Now, it may or may not be that evU or imper-
fection can be shown to be a necessary and ultimate
element in the universe ; but the point seems ta
be one for philosophy to discuss, not for art to
assume. Art, when it seeks to give a compre-
hensive picture of human life, must accept such
flaws as belong to the normal constitution of man.
At what precise point imperfections are to be
regarded as accidental, abnormal, irregular ; a&
presenting so marked a deviation from the type
as to be unworthy of lasting embodiment in art,,
is a problem whose answer will .vary at different
stages of history, and will admit of different
applications according to the particular art that
is in question. Certain imperfections, however,
will probably always be looked on as permanent
features of our common humanity. With these
defects comedy amuses itself, discovering the in-
consistencies which underlie life and character, and
exhibiting evil not as it is in its essential nature,,
but as a thing to be laughed at rather than hated.
Thus limiting its range of vision, comedy is able to


give artistic expression to certain types of character
which, can hardly find a place in serious art.

Again, it must not be forgotten that the in-
dividual character, considered by itself, is not the
same as this character considered in its place in the
drama, A character universalised may, if regarded
alone, still be * ugly,' and yet it may contribute to
the beauty of the whole. In that sense we can
•continue to call it ' ugly ' only by a kind of abstrac-
tion. Or to put it otherwise, — evil regarded in its
■essential nature may be ugly ; but, shown in the
action of the comedy to be nugatory and ridiculous,
it ceases to be ugly ; it is an element in a fact which
is beautiful.

Aristotle draws no distinction between the uni-
versality which is proper to tragedy and comedy
respectively. Each of these, as a branch of the
poetic art, embodies the type rather than the in-
dividual, and to this extent they have a common

An Athenian of the fifth century would hardly
have singled out comedy as an example of poetic
generalisation. The large admixture of personal
satire in the old Attic comedy would rather have
suggested the view that the main ingredient in
■comic mirth is the malicious pleasure afforded by
the discomfiture of another. And, in fact, Plato,
in the subtle analysis he gives in the Philebus ' of

1 Philebus pp. 48-50.


the emotions excited by comedy, proceeds on some
such assumption. The pleasure of the ludicrous
springs, he says, from the sight of another's mis-
fortune, the misfortune, however, being a kind of
self-ignorance that is powerless to inflict hurt. A
certain malice is here of the essence of comic enjoy-
ment. Inadequate as this may be, if taken as a
complete account of the ludicrous, it nevertheless
shows a profound insight into some of the chief
artistic modes of its manifestation. Plato antici-
pates, but goes deeper than Hobbes, whose well-
known words are worth recalling : ' The passion of
laughter is nothing else but a sudden glory, arising^
from a sudden conception of some eminency in
ourselves, by comparison of the infirmity of othera
or with our own formerly.'

The laugjiter that has in it a malicious element
and implies in some sense the abasement of an-
other, does not satisfy Aristotle's conception of the
idea of the ludicrous. His definition in the Poetics '^
carries the analysis a step farther than it had been
carried by Plato. ' The ludicrous,' he says, ' con-
sists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful
or destructive. To take an obvious example, the
comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not
imply pain.' The phrase ' not painful or destruc-

^ Poet. V. 1, T& yap yeXotov €<ttiv &fia.pTrjfj,d, tl Kal ata-;(os
dviiSvvov Kal ov <j>dapTiK6v, oTov evOvs rh yeXoiov irpofrunrov
auT)(fiov Tl KoX BiicTTpafiixivov aviv dSijvijs.


tive ' — either, that is, to the object of laughter, or
sympathetically to the subject — is a remarkable
contribution to the idea under discussion. Still
more significant is the omission of malice, which
to Plato had seemed an essential ingredient.

The pleasure, therefore, of the pure ludicrous is
not to be explained, as some tell us to-day, by
the disinterested delight of primitive man in the
infliction of suffering. It does not consist in a
gratified feeling of malignity, softened indeed by
civilisation, but ultimately to be resolved into a
kind of savage mirth. A good j oke becomes, indeed ,
a little more pungent if it is seasoned with malice,
but, even without the malice, laughter may be pro-
voked. And, according to Aristotle, the quality
that provokes laughter is a certain ' ugliness,' a
' defect ' or ' deformity.' These words, primarily
applicable to the physically ugly, the dispropor-
tionate,the unsymmetrical, will include the frailties,
follies, and infirmities of human nature, as distin-
guished from its graver vices or crimes. Further,
taking account of the elements which enter into the
idea of beauty in Aristotle, we shall probably not
unduly strain the meaning of the expression, if we
extend it to embrace the incongruities, absurdities,
or cross-purposes of life, its blunders and discords,
its imperfect correspondences and adjustments, and
that in matters intellectual as well as moral.

Aristotle's definition is indeed still wanting in


exactness; for though the ludicrous is always in-
congruous, yet the incongruous (even limited as it
is here) is not always ludicrous. Incongruity, in
order to be ludicrous, requires a transition, a change
of mood, resulting in the discovery either of an
unexpected resemblance where there was unlikeness,
or of an unexpected unlikeness where there was re-
semblance. There is always a blending of contrasted
feelings. The pleasure of the ludicrous thus arises
from the shock of surprise at a painless incongruity.
It sometimes allies itself with malice, sometimes
with sympathy, and sometimes again is detached
from both. For our present purpose, however, it is
enough to note that, although Aristotle's definition
is hardly complete, it lias the merit of recognising
the pure ludicrous, which is awakened by the per-
ception of incongruity and provokes no malignant
or triumphant laughter." The definition harmonises
well with his exclusion of personal satire and galling
caricature from genuine comedy, and with his
theory of the generalising power of poetry.

Indeed, Aristotle selects comedy as a salient
illustration of what he means by the representation
of the universal.^ If I understand him aright he

^ Poet. ix. 4-5, o5 (so. tov KadoXov) a-To-xa^trai ij jrotijorts
ivojjMTa eiriridefii^vr] . . . iirl fiev o^v rijs Ka)/i(j)Stas rySjj tovto
StJAov yiyovev • a-vcTT^cravTei yap rhv fivdov 8ia twv elKOTOtv ov
(ovTd) MSS.) TO, Tv^ovra di/oyuara vTroTideaxriv, Koi ov^ uKnnp o*

laixfioTTOLol TTtpl TOV Kud' £Ka<TTOV 7roiov(rLV,

I have ventured to admit into the text my conjecture o«


3)oints to the tendency shown in comedy to discard
the use of historical names and adopt names which
a,re suggestive of character or occupation or ' humours. '
It was part of the effort, which, as he says, poetry
makes to express the universal. The name had
only to be heard in order that the type to which
the person belonged might be recognised ; much in

(or o^x') TO TV)(6vTa for outod to, rv^ovTa of the MSS. : ' the plot
is first constructed J then characteristic or appropriate names are
■affixed.' (For ov to. tv\. cf. Poet. vii. 4, xxvi. 7, Pol. v. (viii.) 5. 1339
b 32, ou rr]v Tv^oCorai/ rj^ovqv) The Arabic version which has a
negative (' nequaquam,' Margoliouth) instead of oxnta supports the
■correction. By a similar error in this very chapter, ix. 2. 1451
■a 37, A" gives oxSto) where the apographa rightly read ov to.

The thought of the passage will, with the correction, be of this
kind : ' It is at this universality that poetry aims when she attaches
names to the characters, i.e. when instead of adopting historical
names {yevoixa/a ovofuna) she gives names of her own invention
(cf. § 6 imroirifi€va). The names in that case are expressive ; they
indicate that the person is not an individual but a type. This
generalising tendency, which has been counteracted in tragedy, has
become apparent in the development of comedy.' Plato in the
Cratylus pp. 392-5 goes far beyond this. By a series of fanciful
etymologies he professes to discover an inner correspondence
between the names of various tragic heroes and their characters or

It is not quite clear whether the reference in rjSrj tovto SrjXov
yeyovev is to the comedy of Aristotle's own day or is meant to
include all the developed forms of comedy. The contrast drawn
between the practice of ot t,a/j,j3oTroioi (cf. v. 3, Kpariys . . . ac^e/ievos
Tijs lafi^LKy^i iSlas) and the new tendency points rather to the
wider reference. Since comedy passed beyond the lampooning
stage, the movement towards generalisation has been perceptible.

The significjint names of Greek Comedy fall into at least two
■classes :
(1) Names, etymologically significant, such as Dicaeopolis, Euelpides,


the same way as in the New Comedy the Boor, the
Parasite, and other types were known on the stage
by their familiar masks. It may be added that
not the names only of the characters, but the
extant titles of plays composed by writers of the
Middle Comedy, imply the same effort after
generalisation. They remind us of the character-

Peithetaerus, Pheidippides in the Aristophanio comedy, coexisting
side by side with real names (Socrates, Cleon, etc.), which were a
survival of the ia/tj8tK^ tSea. On this model probably Plautus
coined his Bombomachides, Polymaohaeroplagides, Pyrgopolyneices
(cf. also Aip)j(riT£i;^j;s in Diphylus) and the like. Of a tamer
kind but still of the same class are the names of soldiers of fortune
in Menander, Thrasonides (in the Mia-ovfievos), Bias (in the KdXa^),,
Polemon (in the IlepiKeipofievoi), and Thrasyleon.
(2) Names which, being appropriated by usage to certain parts^
designated occupation or condition, e.g. Uavdias, Mavas (in Phere-
crates, Alexis, etc. as well as in Aristophanes), Uvppias, Mavia,
all slave-names. Similarly in Plautus, many of the names of
meretrices, Philematium, Glycerium, Palaestra, etc., come pretty
certainly from writers of the New Comedy. Such names were
employed in ordinary life, to judge from Athenaeus (xiii. 583 D
flf.). Again, Plautus and Terence agree in using Chremes, Calli-
demides, Cratinus, Demipho, etc. for senes, and Oharinus, Pamphilus
for adulescerdes.

In Plautus the number of names etymologically significant
and appropriate largely preponderates over the non- significant ;
in Terence the proportion is the other way. In arguing back
from the usage of Plautus and Terence to Greek originals much
caution has to be observed. In Plautus, for instance, there are
some five hundred names which have a Greek appearance (Rassow,
De Plauti suhstantivis, Leipzig, 1881), but many of these are of a.
mongrel formation. Terence's names are for the most part good
Attic names and were probably more or less associated with stock
characters in the New Comedy. Unfortunately the fragments of
Attic Comedy (Middle and New) furnish us with a very scanty


sketches of Theophrastus. Sucli are ' the Peevish
man' (6 Avo-ko\o?), 'the Fault-finder' (o Me/ii/rtynot/so?),
' the Busybody ' (o JloXvirpdyfieov), ' the Boor ' (o
"AypoiKof), 'the Hermit' (o Moi/ot/jotto?). Other
pieces again bear the name of a profession or
occupation, as ' the Boxer ' (o IIvktt??), ' the
Charioteer ' (o 'Hz/toj^o?), ' the Soldier ' (o l,Tpana>Tr]<;),
' the Painter ' (o Zajpa,^o(;) ; and others are called
after a people, — ' the Thessalians,' ' the Thebans,'
' the Corinthians,' — and may be assumed, incident-
ally at least, to portray or satirise national

In various places Aristotle indicates the dis-
tinction between comedy proper, -which playfully

supply of names on which, to rest our conclusions. The Teiopyor
of Menander contains no names etymologically appropriate to the
characters, though Acios and 2vpds are stock slaves' names, familiar
to us from Terence.

The following passage from Donatus on Ter. Ad. 1, which well
illustrates ov to, rvxpvTa ovo/xara of the first class above mentioned :
' nomina personarum, in comoediis dumtaxat, habere dehent rationem
et etymologiam, ; etenim absurdum est comicum aperte argumenta
confingere, vel nomen personae incongruum dare, vel oflBcium quod
sit a nomine diversum.'

If the MSS. reading is retained the passage will run thus : — ' In
the case of comedy this is already clear : the writers first construct
their plots . . . and then, and not till then (ovtco), afiix such
names as first come to hand ' (to. Tiip^ovra dvo/iara being opposed
to TO, yev6fj,£va ovopara). The names are given at haphazard ;.
they are not as in primitive comedy and tragedy tied down to any
historical personage, — not limited by association with any known
individual ; and this fact serves to bring out the generality of the
action. The connexion between to. T-uxovTa and the KadoXov on
this interpretation is somewhat forced, though not impossible.


touclies the faults and foibles of humanity, and
personal satire (^ la/i^iKr] ISia) ^ or invective
i(\otSo/3ia). The one kind of composition is a
representation of the universal, the other of the
particular. He does not expressly mention
Aristophanes in this connexion ; but in the Ethics,
the old political comedy of Athens is contrasted
with the Middle Comedy as employing coarse or
abusive language {ala-'XpoKoyia), instead of delicate
innuendo {virovoia).^ Aristotle himself manifestly
prefers the comedy from which personalities are
Tjanished and which presents generalised types of
character in conformity with the fundamental laws
of poetry.

It is doubtful whether Aristotle had any per-
■ception of the genius and imaginative power of
Aristophanes. The characters of the Aristophanic
drama are not fairly judged if they are thought of
simply as historical individuals, who are subjected
to a merciless caricature. Socrates, Cleon, Euri-
3)ides are types which represent certain movements
in philosophy, politics, and poetry. They are

1 Poet. V. 3.

2 Kth. Nic. iv. 8. 1128 a 22, "iSoi S' av tis koI €k tuv
iK(a/j,<j)Si<ov tZv jroA.ataii' koX t5>v Kaiviov rois /mv yap ^v yeXolov
ij al(T)(poX.oyia, rots Se fiaWov rj vwovoia. Ct, frag, irepl
jco)/i(j)8ias (Cramer Anecd.) : Siatjiepci ij KtDfMpSia rrji XoiSopia^,
■ivel rj ptv koiSopia airapaKakyTTTias to. wpocrovTa KaKo. Sie^euriv,
5j &i SetToi r^s KaAoi;/-iev?;s ip,<f)d(rt(os : where ip.^dinm'i = the
Aristotelian vttovolo.^.


labelled with historic names ; a few obvious traits
are borrowed which recall the well-known person-
alities ; but the dramatic personages are in no'
sense the men who are known to us from history.
Such poetic truth as they possess is derived simply
from their typical quality. It is not, indeed, in the
manner of Aristophanes to attempt any faithful
portraiture of life or character. His imagination^
works by giving embodiment to what is abstract.
His love of bold personification is in part inherited
from his predecessors on the Attic stage : Cratinus
had introduced Laws (No/iot) and Eiches (nxoflrot)
as his choruses. But Aristophanes goes farther;
he seems to think through materialised ideas. He
personifies the Just and the Unjust Logic, and
brings them before us as lawcourt disputants; he
incarnates a metaphor such as the philosopher * in
the clouds,' the jurymen with waspish temper,
mankind with their airy hopes. The same bent
of mind leads him to give a concrete form to the
forces and tendencies of the age, and to embody
them in actual persons. A play of Aristophanes
is a dramatised debate, an a<^u>v, in which the
persons represent opposing principles ; for in form
the piece is always combative, though the fight
may be but a mock fight. These principles are
brought into collision and worked out to their
most irrational conclusions, little regard being paid
to the coherence of the parts and still less ta


propriety of character. The Aristophanic comedy,
liaving transported real persons into a world where
the conditions of reality are neglected, strips them

Online LibraryS. H. (Samuel Henry) ButcherAristotle's theory of poetry and fine art : with a critical text and translation of the Poetics → online text (page 28 of 31)